Currently, my driver's license is "restricted", due to a large amount (okay...a ridiculous amount :) of parking tickets that I amassed over several months last year. For that reason, I am not allowed to register a car in the state of New York until April 2013. Furthermore, I'm only authorized to drive a vehicle to and from my place of business or to/from medical or dental appointments. (Sometimes, I rent a car and drive anyway in my stubborn defiance. But I try not to get carried away. :) So this explains why I found myself riding the bus to a friend's house this weekend. (Thankfully, in NYC one does not necessarily need to drive from point A to point B since mass transit runs 24/7. It is, after all, the city that never sleeps.)
Usually, my daughter will drive me wherever I need to go, or I will hop into a taxi if need be. But from time to time, I'm not above jumping on mass transit to get to where I want to go. So, there I was on Saturday afternoon - on the bus on my way to visit a friend for an afternoon of wine, chit-chat, and laughs. It was slightly overcast, and a little drizzle had begun to fall across Staten Island. I live very close to the Staten Island Ferry terminal, so I had walked there and was lucky to get one of the 'single seats' that allowed me the benefit of not having to sit next to anyone else. The bus was pretty packed, so a lot of passengers were forced to stand. I settled into my seat, popped my headphones in my ears, and turned up the volume for my quick excursion.
The bus was full as a young lady boarded with a toddler and another baby in a stroller. As she stepped on board, I noticed several eye-rolls from the passengers seated near me at the front of the bus. I paused the music on my phone and listened as people sucked their teeth and mumbled under their breath. The bus driver told her that she would have to fold up the stroller and hold the baby since the bus was so packed. The young lady (she appeared to be no older than 18 or 19 years old) immediately caught an attitude. Her voice dripping with irritation, she said, "I can't fold up the stroller and hold on at the same time. So..." She shrugged, and gave him the all-too-familiar 'hood girl sneer' and pushed the stroller past him as she paid her fare. A woman seated in the front gave up her seat for the toddler. A man got up and allowed the woman to sit beside her child. She thanked them and did her best to pull the big stroller close to her, so as not to be too much of an obstacle for the other passengers who were seated or standing near her. The bus rolled on, and at the next stop several more passengers got on. Seeing the bulky stroller as they boarded, most of them voiced their displeasure as they boarded, dramatically stepped over her stroller, and shot her dirty looks to illustrate their annoyance. She gave them just as much attitude in return, shrugging her shoulders in an "Oh well! Get over it!" kind of way, as each of them stepped over her.
A true people watcher, I took it all in as I turned my music back on. I watched the young lady's facial expression shift from annoyance to embarrassment, and then spread into a smile as she locked eyes with her baby as he sat in the stroller before her. Her smile faded again as she looked at the disapproving expressions of the passengers surrounding her. I saw myself in that young lady - the 'me' that I was long ago, as a young single mother who the world seemed to think was just in the way! I remembered being in that same position, recalled being the recipient of all those eye-rolls, whispers, and side-eyes as I went about my day to day existence as someone whom most people viewed as just another statistic. I knew that the young lady's attitude was really just a disguise for the shame she felt. The chip on her shoulder was helping her mask the pain in her heart, the wish that she could somehow disappear amid all the stares.
I looked around at some of the people who were giving her the disapproving looks. One woman was older than me, probably a mother herself. Another young lady looked to be about the same age as the young mother, only she was clearly living a very different reality. Her hair was done, she had time that morning to put on a full face of makeup, her nails were professionally manicured, and she wore an outfit that bore designer labels. Her looks of disapproval seemed to come from a place of "Hmmm! That could never be me!" One lady seated nearby had her own baby on her lap. The only difference was, her child's father stood near her. She had help, whereas the object of all the negative murmurs was alone with her two children.
I caught the single mom's eye and gave her a reassuring smile. She gave me a weak one in return and looked away. I wanted to tell her that it gets better, that I had been in her shoes once and it had all turned out alright. But, she didn't seem too receptive to a pep talk under the circumstances. So instead of butting in to her business, I gazed out the window and reflected on how far I've come.
All those years ago, I had felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. It felt like everyone else's life was going so smoothly, while mine was in a constant whirlwind. The choices I had made caused my life to be much harder than the lives of my peers. There was no prom, no senior ski trip, no pep rallies or going away to college in my forecast. Instead, I was up all night with a teething baby, making pediatric appointments and worrying about what my future held. I remember getting those same disapproving looks, being the subject of those same whispered condemnations, and having to endure the same embarrassment. I shook my head at the memory. And then I thought about how I had managed to turn it all around.
Having made up my mind that I would not tolerate being a "statistic" all of my life, I did whatever it took to graduate on time with my high school class (that included summer school, a zero period course - which I never even knew existed until I had to arrive at school at 7am to take a class that began before first period - remaining in school every day all the way through twelfth period, as well as many extra credit reports, and make-up exams). Once I graduated, I attended college, determined to make something of myself. When college didn't pan out due to my lack of a reliable babysitter, I got a job through my church. Eventually, I went to a trade school to learn business skills, and landed job after job doing office work. Eventually, I carved out a niche for myself, managed to get on my feet, and one day at a time I made progress.
But, I hadn't done it alone. I didn't realize it then, but God had guided my footsteps the entire time. When I felt like giving up, He had placed angels in my midst to push me onward. When the future seemed bleak, He had softened the hearts of employers and school faculty members (and eventually even publishers) who opened doors and gave me a chance. As I look back on it now, I see how the long road I traveled to get to where I am today was dotted with many "rest stops" along the way. Friends, church members, landlords, supervisors, even strangers had acted as "refueling stations" for me throughout my journey - all of them guided by God's unseen hand.
Hebrews 13:2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
I watched the young lady get off the bus with her two children, as the drizzle descended upon them. She hurried along to her destination, and I said a quick prayer for her, as I'm sure countless people have done for me over the years. While I was at it, I thanked God for my own victory. My children and I survived! I managed to raise three very well rounded, intelligent, happy young people. None of them repeated my mistakes. Each of them has been fortunate enough to thrive. My own life has gone from tragedy to triumph. And through it all, we've beaten the odds. We've proven the naysayers wrong.
I wish I had gotten the opportunity to share my story with that young lady - to tell her, "I was once in your shoes, and I'm here to tell you that you can make it if you don't give up!"
Someone had given me that message years ago - one of those angels in disguise I told you about. Back when my children were ages eight, six, and one, and I was working two jobs, seven days a week to keep us afloat. I was at my weekend job at Toys 'R Us, and I was exhausted. Still, I managed to tack on a smile and do my best to provide quality customer service to a couple who had come in to do some Christmas shopping. I was stressed out, weighed down, and wanted nothing more than some ray of hope to get me through. In what can only be a case of God sending an angel to guide me, the young Caucasian man I was assisting - for no apparent reason - reached into his wallet and gave me a laminated card that was weathered and worn.
"Read this," he said. "It helped me get through some hard times. Maybe it will help you." Not sure how he knew that I was going through something, I thanked him, and he hurried off to the check out line. "Keep it," he said. "Don't throw it away."
I never did. I still carry it in my wallet to this day. It reads:
When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don't give up though the pace seems slow -
You may succeed with another blow,
Success is failure turned inside out -
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit -
It's when thing seem worst that you must not quit.
It hadn't occurred to me then, but I should have passed this worn, weathered, laminated card on to that young lady on Saturday. I missed an opportunity to pass on the blessing that stranger had given me all those years ago. But perhaps by sharing it here today, someone who needs it will get the message.
And if you're blessed like I've been to have made it down the long and winding road of life - over obstacles and throughout countless storms - take a moment to thank God for walking beside you, for sending angels to guide you, for dotting your road with "refueling stations" called friends, and loved ones. Don't be so quick to roll your eyes at those who are just starting out on their journey. Remember when you walked a mile in their shoes, and be grateful that you've come such a long way.